How does an affluent First World nation-state go from stability to near social collapse in the space of a week? What prompts a generation characterized by political apathy to flood into the streets? Why does a nouveaux-riche country with a slowing growth rate express its frustration with such violent incoherence? Have we just witnessed the First World's first credit crunch riots?
The rage unleashed by the December riots is the result of years of dissatisfaction over social inequality, poor employment prospects for the young and rising anger with a political system that tolerates two parties switching power between them. "The fish stinks from the head," is a popular Greek expression. "But the rot has spread all the way to the tail," is a popular refrain recently among Greece's disaffected millions. Political conflict has characterised Greece since the formation of the modern state in 1830. First came the protracted War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire and Greece's disastrous invasion of Turkey in 1919. After a harsh Nazi occupation, the 1946-49 Civil War between Communists and Royalists visited deep social polarization and trauma from which Greek society has yet to recover. Seven years of a Washington-backed dictatorship followed.
Finally, a popular rebellion brought down the junta and the monarchy was abolished paving the way for a fragile though often thuggish democracy. The December riots cleaved open Greek society and conjured up social splits unseen in the generation that elapsed since the restitution of the republic. With student mobilizations continuing, how will Greece emerge from this latest crisis?